Yoga and Jewish texts…together? I was curious, so I talked to Eva Heinstein, the executive director of Piyut North America. I asked her how her organization is bringing together sun salutations and ancient Jewish poetry. You can also take a Shira Yoga class at Down Under Yoga in Brookline on Thursdays at 2 p.m. to see for yourself. (Click here for photos from a recent class.)
So tell me about this Piyut yoga class: What is Piyut, and how does it relate to yoga?
Piyutim are sacred Hebrew poems that have been set to music from every country where Jews have settled: Egypt, Morocco, Syria, India, Turkey, Poland and beyond. The texts are mystical and emotionally raw—the authors used this form to express deep feelings of awe, longing, love, gratitude, anger and confusion. And the music is just as gripping. Over the last decade, Piyut has exploded into a national movement in Israel, with annual music festivals, recordings by Israel’s rock stars and Piyut singing communities throughout the country. Excited to direct some of the energy of this movement to the U.S., Piyut North America has been hard at work developing programs and creative practices that can bring Piyut to new settings in the American Jewish community.
So, why use yoga as a vehicle? In most Jewish contexts, we’re asked to use our heads—read books, study texts, engage in discussion, analyze political events—but we aren’t often asked to use our bodies or our hearts. Yoga engages the body so that the mind can rest, and in so doing opens us up to new sensations, prayerful moments and quiet space that can be so hard to find in a busy urban setting.
Piyut is a deeply spiritual tradition, but it can be hard to access through text alone, especially in contexts where Hebrew is not the native language. Historically, Piyutim were set to music precisely for this reason. The tradition flourished in countries around the world where Hebrew was not the vernacular, and so the poems were set to popular music from the region, connecting sacred with secular, tradition with contemporary culture.
That’s what we’re doing with Shira Yoga—we are taking a practice that is popular in the broader community and using it as a portal through which to experience an authentic Jewish tradition. And yoga felt particularly fitting because it helps us get out of our heads and into our bodies, which can create an opening for Piyut’s rich music and teachings to move us (literally).
It’s been years since I’ve done a sun salutation, but I remember yoga being very Eastern in its take on spirituality. How do the teachers reconcile the Torah and Eastern teachings?
Piyut is also very Eastern in its take on spirituality! But, really, it’s less about reconciliation and more about creative integration. We are pairing two authentic pathways—yoga and Piyut—to create a practice that offers new expression of a centuries-old mystical tradition. Jews around the world borrowed music, spiritual practices and poetic forms to enrich the Piyut tradition, and we hope that “borrowing” from yoga will do the same.
Is this class just for young adults, or can anyone attend? How good at yoga does one need to be?
The class is open to all ages and levels. All you need is healthy curiosity and a desire to explore! Teachers Adina Allen and Julie Newman do a wonderful job of creating an all-levels environment, both “yogically” and musically. We’re also so happy to be at the new Down Under Yoga studio in Brookline, which is full of light, air and warm energy!
You’re also a trained ethnomusicologist. Was there a connection between Torah, yoga and music?
When we were in the early stages of developing this idea, I became fascinated by body references in Jewish liturgy as well as Jewish cultural traditions that involve movement. The Jewish prayer book is full of body imagery, and so is Piyut. That said, our approach with Shira Yoga is less literal—we’re not translating specific body references in the Piyutim to yoga positions; rather, we are using the themes in the texts to inform a yoga flow that connects conceptually. And then there’s the rhythm of the music! Each class features a new Piyut melody, and there are opportunities to chant together in the class. The beautiful music and energetic rhythm will definitely make you move.